Bola Jegede, the owner and creator of sustainable African fashion business, Toomey & Koko, took some time out of her busy schedule to talk about starting a business during the Covid Pandemic and why she’s working to put Nigerian fashion on the world stage.
How did you get started in fashion? What’s your background?
I’ve always had a love for fashion from a very young age. Experimenting with colours, textures has been something I grew up with and has been highly influenced by my Nigerian culture and upbringing. I moved to the UK at a young age and pursued my degree in the health sciences but I never lost my love for fashion. I enrolled in night classes and have continued to sew as a hobby. With the encouragement of my friends and family, I decided to take the leap and launch Toomey & Koko.
Tell us about the name of your business – does it have any meaning?
Toomey & Koko is sort of an inside joke between me and my sister and is made up of all the times our Nigerian names were mispronounced growing up in the UK. The name now represents the close relationship that I have with my sister and my family.
How did your upbringing/culture help you get started?
Nigeria has so many distinct ethnic groups and tribes, and I am proud to say I am Yoruba. Growing up in Nigeria and learning about the rich history and culture from my parents, grandparents and experiencing this from an early age was priceless.
Storytelling is very important in Yoruba culture, as a child I remember my dad entertaining us with stories of the tortoise and the hare by candlelight on the nights when there was no electricity. It is as I grew up that I realised the importance of these childhood stories- that they are used to share messages around the value of honesty, perseverance and hard work- key things you need in life and to start a business.
However I think of myself as being “doubly-lucky” to benefit from not only my Nigerian culture but growing up in a multicultural British society which provided me with an understanding and appreciation of other cultures.
You started Toomey & Koko during the Covid Pandemic – tell us about your experience? Would you recommend this as a ‘good time’ to start a business?
The one thing I realise now is that there is never a “perfect” time to do anything in life, much less so starting a business, but that shouldn’t stop you from stepping out in faith and doing something you are passionate about. I came up with the idea for Toomey & Koko in January 2020 with the plan to launch later that same year. As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic had other ideas and that led to me eventually launching in November 2021. Coming through the pandemic really emphasised the importance of being flexible and problem solving, as well as being open to new ways of doing things. Prior to 2020, the idea of working from home, remote/video meetings and using social tools such as WhatsApp was alien to many. Now we can’t imagine life without these tools! I believe that in order to be successful, you have to keep up and not be complacent as life has many unexpected twists and turns.
Everyday us Black women raised in the western world are surrounded by that style of fashion – we’ve adopted it too. Do you think this constrains our view on African and Nigerian fashion?
Growing up in the UK in the ’90s and ’00s, it was very much a different story back then. It was easy to internalise messages about Africa being “backwards” and adopt more westernised ideas about fashion. I am so glad to see this topic of debate being more openly discussed and more efforts to combat it through promoting #blackowned brands in Fashion.
I am glad to see many designers emerging from Africa that are challenging this stereotype and showing the rich diversity within the continent. Seeing how other African Fashion brands being successful in this space is what inspired me to launch my own brand. It would be my dream that one day, we have just as many choices for African Fashion brands as we do with Eurocentric brands.
What inspires you and your designs?
The short answer is anything! There is inspiration to be found everywhere, from imaging how a pattern of a leaf could be transferred into fabric, to seeing what people are wearing in their streetwear and if this could be streamlined into a new design. My mind is always racing with ideas.
How are you using Toomey & Koko to showcase African/Nigerian fashion to the world?
My designs are brought to life in vivid Adire fabrics, which use a resist-dyeing technique involving indigo and other natural dyes to create bold, eye-catching patterns. Adire originated in south western Nigeria and the tradition of indigo dyeing goes back centuries among the women of West Africa. Adire is sometimes overlooked in favour of more “glitzy” fabrics but I love it as it is so versatile. You can come up with a million colour combinations and designs, with each piece being uniquely made. I love how we’re able to incorporate such traditional techniques into truly modern designs.
What’s your vision for today’s Black woman and fashion?
Today’s Black woman is dynamic. She has a strong cultural background and history that she acknowledges but she is forward looking to the future. She wants to represent and be represented. My designs are for her to show up and show out in.
What’s the message that you want customers to receive with your business?
In a world that is turning more towards clickbait and sensationalising things, I want my customers to see the authenticity that is embodied in my designs. Everything is carefully considered, from the careful selection of the Adire fabrics, the fit and designs of the patterns to the user experience on the website and shipping. I want to deliver a premium experience of African fashion.
Today’s Black woman is dynamic. She has a strong cultural background and history that she acknowledges but she is forward looking to the future. She wants to represent and be represented. My designs are for her to show up and show out inBola Jegede – Toomey & KoKo, Creator and Founder
Fast fashion and the environment is a hot topic right now; what’s your opinion on what retail and fashion companies can do better? What does your business do to support the environment?
I don’t believe that good fashion and feeling good about ourselves has to cost the planet. I do see a lot of focus on accumulating, conspicuous consumption and the short timeframes for new releases is bad. It uses up the planets resources at an accelerated rate, and reduces our appreciation for our garments, taking for granted the workmanship and skills that goes into making our clothes. Toomey & Koko is proud to be a “slow fashion” brand, producing limited collections rather than promoting new items every season – and the clothes are designed to be worn all year round, year after year. I’ve worked hard to create a sustainable supply chain, sourcing our fabrics direct from the makers and working closely with them to produce high-quality items. That means we cut out the middleman and can scale production easily and responsibly, minimising our impact on the environment.
What advice would you give to Black women who want to start their own fashion business?
Do it. Each of us has something to contribute, a unique perspective, a story. We need more black women in the fashion space producing what we want to wear, not just as consumers of an industry that barely pays us a second glance.
It won’t be easy, it will be a frustrating journey and you will feel demotivated at times, but it is worth it.
What can we expect to see from your business in the future?
I would love to have a garment that is 100% made in Nigeria. Then I will happily put the “made in Nigeria” label on the garments with pride. Over the next few months I will be travelling to Nigeria and looking to partner with garment production factories to bring this vision to life.
Find out more about Toomey & Koko at:
Toomey & Koko Website
Social media channels: @toomeyandkoko